Saturday, 28 April 2018

Verdi - Il Corsaro (Valencia, 2018)

Giuseppe Verdi - Il Corsaro

Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Valencia, 2018

Fabio Biondi, Nicola Raab, Michael Fabiano, Kristina Mkhitaryan, Oksana Dyka, Vito Priante, Evgeny Stavinsky

OperaVision - 8th April 2018

The quality of early Verdi operas is variable, even by the composers own admission, but some are certainly worth of occasional revival, even if it's just for curiosity value. A few - very few, maybe only one (Macbeth) - are worthy of being included more often as part of the familiar Verdi canon, others are crude and forgettable (Alzira, Attila), some are flawed but redeemable through a good production and an interesting interpretation (I Due Foscari, Stiffelio, Giovanna d'Arco, Luisa Miller). Il Corsaro probably belongs in the latter category, but its qualities can be enhanced with a good staging and exceptional singing and the 2018 Valencia production goes some way towards demonstrating and achieving that.

It's rare however that you can do anything redeemable with the staging of any early Verdi opera; which in the main consist of romantic melodramas in oppressive wartime situations that don't have much in the way of subtext, nuance or depth. The singing, particularly that of the lead soprano role, can also be extremely challenging far beyond the merits of the piece without really adding to the drama. That's all part of the Verdi DNA however that comes into fruition mid-career, and it can be fascinating to explore the hints already there of the greatness to come if you have a production good enough to tease them out.

The first good sign in the Valencia production is that there's a bit of imagination and style applied to the production design rather than literal slavishness to the libretto's locations. Instead of ship anchored at a Greek island where the chief corsair Corrado is languishing in exile and reduced to piracy, we find ourselves in Act I within the mind of a broken man, sitting at writing desk remembering better times or dreaming of taking part in further exploits. His wife Medora looks on in despair at his downfall and, alarmed at the flask of what may be laudanum he is imbibing, she slips it into her pocket.

Corrado however has other vices and is clearly not adverse to a pipe of opium. In his mind the Ottoman Empire still a threat, so in Act II the bold Byronic adventurer once more visits the exotic East of delights and dangers. There he visits a harem and attracts the attention of Gulnara, the favourite of the Pasha Seid. Seid and his warriors launch into a battle with the corsairs, putting the city and the harem to flame. Corrado rescues Gulnara from the conflagration and is captured while doing so, and earns the mercy of Seid. Until Seid becomes suspicious of Gulnara's feelings for this brave corsair...

There's no need to get to clever with the concept, but there's no need for literal realism either, as combined with Verdi's bombast, the Byronic hero's romantic adventures in the exotic East could seem a little bit over the top. Il Corsaro is tremendous fun, but not particularly memorable and hard for a modern audience to take seriously. Director Nicola Raab doesn't try to get too clever by imposing an unworkable concept on top of what is a fairly straightforward romantic adventure, and without betraying the original spirit of the work she finds a good way of making it a little more 'realistic' or relatable by playing it out as an opium-induced flight of imagination, which as it was originally written by Lord Byron it may well have been.

The production doesn't need a literal depiction that takes it all seriously and literally then. There's more than enough dynamic in the music and the contrasts and colours that lie between East and West, between Christian and Muslim, between men and women. Verdi of course depicts all that in grand brush strokes, all sword and flame, blood and thunder, gods and demons. There's nothing wishy-washy about early Verdi (or middle or late Verdi either, I suppose), and Fabio Biondi's conducting of the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana emphasises the sheer brio with which Verdi attacks the material, where there is also at least some measure of sophistication in the melodies and romantic sentiments.

There's a similar contrast between imagination and reality in George Souglides's production design that shows this flitting between dreams of adventure and the sudden down-to-earth shifts of reality that seep in. Projections of battles and flames are thrown onto a screen that is torn down like a sheet of paper, emphasising that it's all the projection of a troubled mind, allowing it to be taken seriously but not literally. It's a good middle-way to approach early Verdi, giving us spectacle and entertainment and permitting all the spirit of the work to come through without having to look at it ironically or indulgently. That's probably about the best you can hope for in Il Corsaro

Well, that and some great singing, as that can make all the difference. The Valencia production gets off to a terrific start, the clever production design and the invigorating score matched by a committed Michael Fabiano in the role of Corrado and Kristina Mkhitaryan as his wife Medora. As he showed in Dmitri Tcherniakov's radical reworking of Carmen for Aix-en-Provence 2017, Fabiano isn't thrown by contradictions between characters who are seen to be role-playing and allows a touch of bewilderment creep into the heroic sincerity of the performance. Mkhitaryan is mightily impressive as Medora, showing a fullness of voice and a deep emotional expression. Medora however is not the principal soprano role, and it's Oksana Dyka who has to struggle with that challenge as Gulnara. Inevitably she is pushed and her pitch wavers occasionally, but it's a valiant effort. Vito Priante sings well but throwing pantomime villain poses he is unable to make much of the role of Seid.

The singing performances and the full-on musical performance under Fabio Biondi carry the work though the dramatic weaknesses of Act III. There's a long scene of Corrado refusing to accept Gulnara's help of escape ("Fly from your prison to freedom, my soul") by manfully accepting his fate only to eventually agree, but as Corrado puffs on his opium pipe, the production does well to try to associate his behaviour as being captive of his addiction or the affliction of his desires and fears. Medora is also saddled with more despairing sentiments that lead up to her suicide and Corrado following, but there's no denying that Verdi provides all the thrills and spills that lead up to this heroic-romantic conclusion, and Biondi hammers it home.

Links: Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, OperaVision